84 Stitches

FullSizeRenderThree days before the summer holiday when I was  nearly 9 years old I fell through a greenhouse and sliced my leg in two. A half moon red-faced chunk of a smile stared back at me when I looked down and some of my leg seemed to be missing. Quite a large bit of it, as it happens. I knew I was in trouble. Not just with Mr Cundill for messing up his greenhouse, and not just my mother – who would be furious with the state of my shorts – but really, really in trouble. Not being able to walk trouble. And if I couldn’t walk that meant I couldn’t run. Not running was trouble.

Tracey Cundill was mouthing words at me but I wasn’t catching them. I turned my head to the side and really stared. Was Tracey actually even speaking to me? Tracey pointed to me then the greenhouse and then my leg and then she screamed.

“I’m sorry about the greenhouse,” I said.

There was glass everywhere.  Really, a whole window of glass.  It was a mess and when I looked I noticed that there were spots of my blood all over Mr Cundill’s tomatoes.

They probably wouldn’t be able to eat them.

“I’m sorry about the tomatoes,” I said.

Tracey went through the same pointing and screaming routine at least twice more and then she left. It wasn’t like her to be so incoherent: she was one of the cleverest girls in my class.  It was, however, typical of Tracey to run away and just as typical that she was going to tell my mother that it wasn’t her fault that I’d come a cropper in her yard.  Neither Michaela nor Dawn, my other friends, would have done that to me. They’d have stuck with me through thick and thin, they’d have let me tell my mother my own story. They’d have at least tried to help me get home. Tracey always had an eye for the main chance.  She was a survivor.

I shifted my weight on to my good leg and then started to work out how I could drag the gaping one across Tracey’s yard, over the road and into my own yard. Once I got going it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. Slow, but also not as sore as I thought a gaping hole should be. It didn’t hurt that much at all. Not that I could look at it any more – because the last time I did I saw yellowy cream bits in there and that scared me.

When I was halfway across the road I could hear Tracey shouting; “Mrs B, Mary has broken her leg!”

“Where is she love?” I heard my mam say.

“She’s walking across the road!”

And then I heard my mam laugh, a big belly laugh that echoed all round the street. At least she was in a good mood I thought. At least she wouldn’t actually kill me.

My mother stopped laughing as soon as she saw it. Her face crumpled like a dishcloth. She swore quite a bit too. I knew it was best to wait until she was through with all that before I spoke… Then the questions came thick and fast. There were lots of questions about what I’d done to myself and what I was playing at that I couldn’t answer. The blood had started to pool around my ankle and my sock which had been pristine white, was now red. My mother disappeared and I heard a call to the emergency services. She didn’t scream, which was a bonus.

“Why are you  standing out there for?” my mam said.

“I’m not messing up your floor, mam.” I felt brave, superhuman.

“I don’t care about the floor,” she said.

She did care about the floor though; and the towel, that we threw between us for a while.

“Use the towel love, to stem the flow.”

“No.” I said.  This was the most defiant I had ever been.

We were still passing the towel between us when the ambulance men arrived.

“Blimey – got a bit of a scratch have you darling?”

“Always been the master of understatement Dave,” his mate said in the direction of my mother.

Dave started to bandage my leg.  It felt tight.

“You’d better get your stuff love… and some night clothes for Flossie Teacake here.”

“I’m called Mary,” I said.

When we got into the street a crowd had gathered around the blue flashing lights of the ambulance. There was a traffic jam of people. Me – in a wheelchair now – waved to everyone. It was like being a celebrity and I knew as we drew away I would be the talk of the neighbourhood. Everyone would know the story by the end of the day and those who didn’t would make up the details. By the end of the week no doubt I would have had my leg amputated three times and re-attached – or I’d have had a leg transplant and would have one leg permanently longer than the other.

There was some kerfuffle when we finally arrived in A and E.  Firstly, I’d had sweets which meant that I couldn’t be put to sleep.  Secondly, and inexplicably, I told my mother that I wanted my dad.  I knew this had wounded her, but I had no idea just how deeply this had hit her until years and years later, when she confessed it to me when she thought that she might die of cancer.  She didn’t, and I spent the 30 years following that feeling like an utter moron for saying such a thing.  I was 8.  I was weak. And I was a daddy’s girl.

The details were bad but I had been lucky. The doctors said I’d missed the main artery by two millimetres. I didn’t really know what a main artery was but I could tell by the way the doctor looked at me a bit ashen and downbeat that it was a good thing I’d missed it. I stared back and forth between my mam and dad, who looked as though they hadn’t slept for a week and they smiled weakly. I was alive.  I’d never noticed my mam’s grey hair until then or the lines on my dad’s face particularly around his eyes.

At about midnight, I was deemed fit enough to go down to theatre.  My mother and my father had gone home, and I recall the tribe of doctors and nurses who steered the trolley I was on down the corridor.  The taste of the rubber from the mask is a distinct but thankfully distant memory: I was told to count myself to sleep. When I awoke, I’d had 84 stitches.  61 inside and 23 outside.  If this doesn’t seem that many think of the average 8 year old’s leg. I was very lucky.

The next day my brother and sister had arrived.

“You’re alive then,” my brother, K said, “I had to clean up the blood with Laurie next door. It was everywhere.”

My sister, KM brought me a comic. And didn’t say very much.

“There was flesh and stuff. Up the walls. Everywhere. Wouldn’t go down the drain. Everywhere. You know you’ve had a blood transfusion – that means you’ve got someone else’s blood in you. It could be an evil murderer. Or a Zombie.” K was excited.

“You’re only jealous,” I looked at KM. “Are you okay?”

“I should have been looking after you,” she said. “I’m supposed to keep my eye on you.”

“It could be a vampire’s. Or a werewolf’s. You’ll probably howl at the moon from now on whenever it’s full. It could be a crazed lunatic’s or a Druid or something.”

“It’s probably just the butcher’s,” I said.

Tracey and Dawn visited that evening. Their parents were very good – and Mr Cundill didn’t shout at me for messing up his greenhouse. He said that he’d given my mother some beetroot and would be taking the rest of the greenhouse down. “I didn’t know it was dangerous,” he said apologetically as he and Dawn’s mam retreated to the waiting room to give the us girls ‘space.’

“It’s only dangerous if you’re standing on it.” I said.

“He’s really upset.” Tracey looked around. “It smells a bit funny in here.”

“Probably thought he was going to be sued.” Dawn said. Tracey frowned as if to say he didn’t but didn’t speak.

“Can I see your scar?” Dawn was not backwards in coming forwards.

“It’s wrapped up. I haven’t seen it meself yet.”

“Me mam said you’d had 84 stitches. She said that’s more than you cast on for a jumper!”

“Where’s Michaela?”

I noticed a slight waver in Tracey’s stare. I looked at her, but she did not waver again.

“She’s not very well.” Dawn said. “Got a headache.”

“Is she going to come up to see me?”

They didn’t answer and talked about school instead – about the excitement of the last day of the year coming up, that I would miss.

A succession of people did come up to the hospital to see me – Uncle John and Aunt Vi brought me ten bars of chocolate which my mam said I would have to share with K and KM (which wasn’t fair), my teacher – Mrs Sweeney – gave me a jigsaw. Aunt Vic sent me a bundle of colouring stuff bought cheap off the market (“Probably fall to bits in a matter of seconds,” my mam said, curtly). Mrs Binchy from next door bought me some fruit, and my mam didn’t say I would need to share that! Loads of people came, but Michaela never did.

There was a very good reason for this, of course…

(To be continued…)

Taken

FullSizeRenderMy most impressive achievement as a young person was the Queen’s Guide Award.  Not many girls managed this and fewer still from the neck of the woods that I was from: there was no precedent for it, and I gained it by sheer force of will and a ton of support from Guiders who came in all shapes and sizes, and who taught me a whole bundle of stuff about women and their power.  There were police officers, nurses, high-powered educators, administrators in the NHS, probation officers – determined women who did not take the world lying down. I can remember their names: Audrey Lord, Carol Selwyn Jones, Kay Button, Bev Smith, Pat Sugden, Mrs Tansey and the Scout leader, Celia Worley.  Those women, and others, taught me how to be myself. I would have been lost without them: working in a factory packing peas or making ends meet between low-paid and unskilled jobs.  This sounds like an exaggeration – it isn’t.

I sucked up the brilliance and madness of this world of women from 1975 to 1981 against the backdrop of a sinister force that gave an entirely different message – one that forced women off the streets, and that questioned our rights to take up space.  One that made us all just a little bit more frightened.

The sequence of attacks began in 1969, but the first murder came in October 1975.  I had just flown up to the Guides leaving the toadstool of the Brownies behind, and was battling my mother for a uniform (she was convinced I wouldn’t stick at it, and made me wear a blue shirt that was not the right colour and made me stand out like a sore thumb; not a position I enjoyed.)

Wilma McCann, a known prostitute, was stabbed in the neck, chest and abdomen multiple times and twice hit over the head with a hammer – her body was left in Chapletown, Leeds.  It barely created a ripple in the news, and I was more concerned with the Christmas Carole concert and singing the descant (badly).

I was bored initially by Guide activities so me and my mate Dawn took it upon ourselves to write Swallow on all of our patrol’s equipment.  Then, we’d try to.  We’d try to swallow the pencil.  We tried to swallow the notebook.  We even tried to swallow the kit box which was bigger than both of us and weighed as much as a grown man.  The Captain told us our antics were ridiculous. We protested: it clearly said swallow notebook, didn’t it?  It clearly said swallow rubber? The Captain was not impressed… we laughed like drains!

Meanwhile, murder number two took place: Emily Jackson, 42. Struggling to make ends meet, she was eking out her slim income by turning tricks. She was also killed in Leeds.

“Something’s not right here,” my dad said, “Don’t you go wandering around at night, you two.”

“Don’t be soft,” my mam threw out, “You’ll frighten them.”

I looked at my sister who looked at me, and then we went to Tuesday club.  We liked it at Coltman Street mission where the Tuesday Club took place because they had a better class of biscuit than the Church of our Guide Company.  It was January, perishing cold.  A woman would need to be desperate to go out on a night like this to be paid for sexual favours.  “Don’t go down the tenfoot*,” our mother yelled after us.  I didn’t like going through there in the daytime and never would at night. One of the Mainprizes once chased me with a Rubber Johnny** on a stick making me divert down the tenfoot, which practically scarred me for life.

In 1977, four more women were killed: Irene Richardson, Tina Atkinson, Jane McDonald (who was just 16 and not a prostitute) and Jean Jordan.  Each of the women were hideously mutilated, and getting careless, the killer had left a boot mark on one woman’s sheets and a crisp new fiver for her services on another, that could only have been in 8000 people’s wage packets: the police interviewed 5000 men in relation to this including the killer.  Still the police could not find The Yorkshire Ripper (as he was now dubbed in the press even though Jean Jordan was killed at Hough End, Manchester, where years later, I often walked my dog.)

1977 also happened to be the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.  There was much talk, as I recall, about the killing of Jane McDonald who was just a few years older than all of us, and like us: just walking home from a night out.  She could have been us.  We had to travel in twos: not wander off on our own. I raced my sister home after Guides to watch Cagney and Lacey, which by a country mile, was the best thing on TV. A street away, women were keeping the wolf from the door by prostituting themselves. I worried for them.

At Guide Camp, that year, the fancy dress theme was ‘I’m backing Briton’.  I can’t remember what my sister did, although it was something to do with arguing about ‘back in’ and ‘backing’ when she proposed to wear her clothes on the wrong way and that would definitely win a prize, but she made me cry.  Our Captain, who was the Quarter Master at the camp, noted this – I saw her watch the scene play out, and a steely determination took hold of her. Later, she said to me, “I was the younger sister, too.”

As 1977 folded into 1978 and bored out of our tiny brainboxes my sister, me and our friends Alison and Dawn wrote “This is crap” and “Wash me!” all over the Captain’s old estate  car.  For good measure, Dawn and I also shoved an old exhaust we’d found up the back of the vehicle to give the Captain a bit of a jolt when she saw it.  This was just high-spirits but a few days later when  Audrey, the Captain, was driving up to Scotland, her actual exhaust fell off.  Of course, this could have been a coincidence but she was a practical woman who would not believe it.

She rang up our mother who listened patiently to a list of complaints about us.  Hanging our heads in shame, that Friday we walked up to the Church Hall.  We began the evening in a circle, and the Captain called us to attention.  She spoke quietly saying that my sister and Alison would be banned for life for their antics, without any hope of return, and Dawn – who she’d never liked – would be suspended for three weeks.  “You,” she said, “Will have your stripes removed.”

I tried to open my mouth to explain that it was me that had actually put the old exhaust up the back of the car, along with Dawn, but she would not hear of it.  In a moment of great pomposity she said, “The older ones should take responsibility.  They should know better!”  I knew this wasn’t fair, but I just stood and looked on sadly as my three co-conspirators left the hall.  “I’m sweeping clean with a new broom,” Audrey said, “I’m making room.”

Meanwhile, two further killings had happened: Yvonne Pearson and Helen Rytka, both young girls, both street workers.  Helen was only 18 years old. As I read the circumstances around her death in the Daily Mail on my paper round, I wondered how a girl barely out of school had found this was the only thing she could do to survive.  I knew nothing of the world of drugs and although we were as poor as church mice (I knew this because of what we didn’t have compared to my peers, and compared to the girls from the better off Guide Companies who enjoyed activities I had never heard of: wind-surfing and rock-climbing and sailing), it was not the grinding poverty of those who have no options at all.

Within weeks, the Captain had restored my stripes and began subtly introducing me to the steps I’d need to take to reach greatness (in her eyes).  I should volunteer at a Garden Party she’d suggested.  So I did. I sold raffle tickets.  And I also bought some too.  And won the main prize, much to my acute embarrassment.

It was more than a year before the Ripper killed again. By this time, he was killing any woman who dared to venture into the night.  His 10th killing was a young woman called Joanne Whittaker who was only 19 and worked in a building society.  His 11th was a student – Barbara Leach.  She was just 20.

By now, everyone was talking about the Ripper – about how he didn’t care who or what you were, that he would kill you if you stayed out late: we were worried, but not in a coherent way.  We learned our lesson well – women needed to watch out. There was a pervasive message right there: girls should not be out at night.

There was extensive coverage of a tape allegedly made by the Ripper, sent by a bloke with a Wearside accent, that tormented the detective in charge of the case and his inability to catch him.  This man – who sent the investigation in the wrong direction – was never caught.

I was coming on in leaps and bounds – something about the responsibility I’d been given suited me.  One Sunday every month, I was responsible for church parade and often carried the colours or the union flag.  I enjoyed this.  And the badges kept on coming: I had an armful.  The Captain said, “We’ll get you that Queen’s Guide Award.” I undertook long-term volunteering.  I cleaned the church brasses.  I wrote, I swam, I cooked, I knitted, I collected, I looked after children, I orienteered, I saved lives, I prevented accidents, I was a backwoodsman, I knew all about the commonwealth. I ticked each badge off in turn.

Two days before my 15th birthday, Marguerite Walls, a 47 year old was killed and three months later the Ripper committed his final murder, that of Jacqueline Hill, 20: another student, this time of Leeds University, on 17th November, 1980.  I vividly remember her mother: the anguish, the anger, how articulate she was in her grief.  (Years later the poet Rosie Garland, who I was briefly in a theatre company with, read a poem about Jacqueline Hill, a girl she shared a regular tutorial with.  Rosie – who is now a novelist and long time member of the band The March Violets, could have been that 13th woman whose life was snuffed out but she hadn’t attended the tutorial that night. It could have been her.  Easily.  On such a small axis of chance do we survive, sometimes. All that potential and promise, all those lives gone and still others who he attacked but who did not die, whose lives where nonetheless destroyed. All those who lived a half life because of what he did: the victims’ mothers and fathers, their children.  Sisters.  Brothers.  Cousins. Friends: the pain rolling out in circles, crashing over whole neighbourhoods.)

By May 1981, I had completed the collection of all the badges I needed to be awarded the Queen’s Guide.  I received a certificate from the Queen.  I was chuffed as mint balls. This was a big enough deal to warrant my picture being taken by the local paper. It was very exciting for me and my family.  The photographer came to the church and he stood me underneath a tree.  I beamed. I would appear a week later. I looked forward to everyone seeing me.

Peter Sutcliffe’s trial began on the 5th May 1981 and lasted two weeks.  He was found guilty of 13 murders and 7 attempted murders and was sentenced to 20 concurrent life sentences.  This verdict set newspapers into a frenzy: he had tried to say he’d heard the voice of God and this had compelled him to act.  Page after page of coverage of this man and what he’d done, then, at the very right-hand edge on page 5 me, a sliver of space, smiling, with my certificate on show. And beside my beaming face, the headline in bold, filling the rest of the page from left to right but for my small triumph, ‘Ripper Victim talks…’  And that was when I really thought: it could have been me.

It could have been any of us.

*tenfoot = an alley, ten foot wide

**Rubber Johnny = a condom

I used facts about the Ripper’s Victims from the Wikipedia entry for Peter Sutcliffe.  You can read the whole thing here

I have written about Audrey before here

Shadows

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Still reeling from a drama I didn’t fully understand which featured my normally (at least outside the house) mild-mannered mother yelling uncontrollably at the head teacher about the shame caused by the label pinned to my jumper on my first day at school: ‘has fits’, I made my way innocently to the toilets.

Neither did I fully understand the nuance of what my mother had been yelling but I’d picked up something about public humiliation, something about discretion being the better part of valour (or Valerie – which my father always said), and something about how my mother assumed that the other children could actually read, this being a school where education occasionally happened?

“It’s probably already too late!  You’ve probably made a laughing stock of my child.” I’d looked at my mother in awe: I didn’t remember her standing up for me in quite this fashion before although I was concerned that she was making the kind of first impression that wouldn’t serve me well in the long-term.

I was thinking this as I entered the toilets.  This was 1970, and Constable Street Primary School was an old Victorian building with a few utilitarian 1960s additions.  The main feature of the playground was the wall wrapped around the infant building. Babbapapa and Babbamama had been painted on one wall in garish pinks and black.  Also, the entrance to the toilets was outside: built in stone, it curved round, and, from memory, a single light served half a dozen stalls. It was cold.  And it was not a place for the faint hearted: the shadows danced along the walls.

I have an older brother and an older sister so I did possess a general awareness of threat: when you’re the youngest (as I was then) you tend to keep your eyes peeled, have a sense of something imminent that follows you around, a menance,  and you tend to be on the lookout for the demands coming down the line to you (I had, cleverly, adopted two tactics to avoid doing things: pretend I couldn’t do it OR cry and run away.  I had major successes with both approaches.)

It was dark in the toilets and I knew, immediately, that I was in trouble.  Three girls appeared.  One was a girl called Wiggy: I didn’t know that then, I just knew she was wearing a blue knitted bonnet that was really too small for her head which from the angle I was looking at her, made it seem unnaturally shrunken.   There was not a trace of hair on her head. She was also very tall. The other two were Hilton girls: one of them, Kim, was stocky – and I knew instinctively, as birds know the moments before the sun rises, that she was to be feared, that she was to be avoided. Like the plague.

“Now then,” Kim said.  I think the older girl was probably her sister.  She was taller, but otherwise indistinguishable.  The only thing I knew about the Hilton clan was that there had been 24 of them – 24 children in one family.  I’d given this a passing thought: we struggled to get into the bathroom in a morning, so how they managed it was anyone’s guess.

“Now then,” Kim said again.  “You’ve got fits?”  This was phrased as a question but I sensed that she was not expecting an answer.  I thought about crying.  I thought about running away. I thought about how this might be my only way out of the situation.  I looked from one girl to the other to try and see what the right answer might be.  Kim smiled: if I’d had teeth like hers, bright white, I’d have smiled all day.  Kim Hilton did not smile all day, her default position was simmering rage.

“Have one then,” she said.  Kim was not making a joke. Kim did not make jokes.

The thing about having fits, from what I can remember, is you have no idea what happens or what it looks like because you’re busy having a fit not observing it from a distance for a later date when someone commands you do it on demand.

So, I lay down on the cold concrete, and started to shake.  Vigorously.

At that point, my sister came in. My sister who did often hate me hanging around all the time and who generally got fed up of me said, “What’s going on?”

“She’s having a fit,” Kim Hilton said, matter of factly.

“I think that’s enough now.” My sister said.

Miraculously I made a full recovery. My performance had been enough to satisfy them for the moment.  “Alright” Kim said, and walked away. Wiggy and the other Hilton girl followed. Kim would hover at the edge of my playtime daily, waiting for me to go into the toilets.  I did not make the same mistake twice.

I often saw Kim Hilton out and about around Chomley Street and down the Boulevard where her family lived.  She and Wiggy were often companions, and, when I did see them, I did invariably find something really interesting to look at in the opposite direction.  Lots of members of the family had a reputation for hitting first and then – if the mood took them – considering later.

My next serious encounter with Kim was not one of my finest moments.  A couple of years later, when I was about 7, my sister and I were looking after two smaller children.  Kim, for no better reason than she fancied a bit of sport, swaggered towards us.  Words passed between my sister and Kim, and possibly me, that quickly escalated into World War 3.  I did what any self-respecting survivor would do: I ran away.  Yes, I left my sister with two small children and ran.  This is not something I’m especially proud of, and I accept I did not cover myself in glory but it taught me an important lesson… flight is a legitimate tactic even if it appears selfish, even if your sister reminds you of it for the next 150 years.

One  time, one of the Hilton children was knocked over in the street, a pure accident – cars were infrequent at that time, and there was much less need for speed.  The child had simply stepped into the road.  This was not how the Hiltons saw it. They were totally committed to each other, a tight-knit clan who were fiercely loyal, and would do anything if that commitment was questioned or challenged, who would do anything if something (or someone) came between them.   Clearly, I did not match that level of loyalty. I was too frightened for that.  Too cowardly. After the ambulance had taken the child to the hospital, the family turned on the car driver, 20 of them rocking his vehicle from side to side, as the guilty man, Mr  Fairhead, sat inside it, terrified for his life.  This level of threat cloaked them like an aura, like a veil – they had an undercurrent of hostility that rested among them like legionella, invisible but lethal.

That anger never left Kim Hilton.  Years later, I saw her rugby tackled by a police officer after she had allegedly stolen a few packets of biscuits from the shopping centre on Bransholme housing estate.  The police roughed her up unnecessarily, and in my student inspired hopes for a better world, I was outraged by the brutality that she was subject to. She swore black was blue as a knee in her back held her flat to the floor.

Brutality was a world Kim understood.  She was often angry and provocative. And that, in part, contributed to her death. On that particular day, Kim and her then girlfriend began drinking strong lager at lunch time.  The drunker they got, the more Kim’s partner convinced herself that Kim was having an affair. The argument raged on and off all day, with Kim being punched, and then, later each viciously shouting at the other in the street, before going their separate ways.

At midnight, or thereabouts, the partner, Andrea, returned with an iron bar as a weapon and managed to get herself into Kim’s flat.  All those years of fight, had stood the test of time, and Kim was never going to do the coward’s thing, and run away.  Instead, she fronted up and disarmed Andrea, taking the weapon she’d brought to smack her, and placing it out of harm’s way.  But the fight did not end there. Neighbours shouted for the women to shut up…and then silence came – still in a rage, Andrea grabbed a knife and stabbed Kim Hilton through the heart.  She died straight away, her rage fading away with her shadow.

Transformations

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“Hello Transformations, can I help you?”

“Have you got a stiletto in a size 12?  Red, if possible?”

“We’re a theatre company.  The number you need is…”

When I first met Jackie R, she often gave me the tally of calls she’d received that day from men seeking a transformative experience on their transvestite or transgender journey.  It surprised her, in the back water of Cheadle Hulme, that so many men called in.  It was particularly surprising since she was a mask based theatre company. Each time, she would patiently read out the number they actually needed.

I was a relatively young Head of Drama in a secondary school at the time and received countless offers of interventions from new and established theatre companies which arrived in the form of leaflets.  In truth, I was the worst responder to much excellent work, tied up as I was in the business of surviving each day.  So, when my burgeoning pigeon hole was full, I’d re-file the leaflets in the car.  Here they would stay until such times as I (or more likely someone else) removed them.

Snotty at that stage was studying on a course about community arts.  There was an expectation that individuals on the course would find their own placement.  Snotty rifled through my (by now) impressive flyer collection in the car, and by chance, selected Transformation Theatre Company. On such whimsy are life-time friendships made.

Jackie answered the phone – probably relieved that Snotty actually wanted to participate in her world and immediately agreed a placement.  It was an exciting time for Transformation – they had (basically through more competent teachers than me) managed to book a tour of the Seasons shows and they were looking for Winter.  Snotty got the part.

I met Jackie sometime later, when she’d wanted lots of hands to take part in mask making.  I went along for the fun of it. We hit it off straight away.  As I am tall, Jackie was small.  I like to tell jokes, Jackie liked to laugh at them. So we quickly became firm friends.

A few months later two significant life events took place.  I left teaching for a freelance life (without any idea of what that might look like) and Jackie got a job at Mid-Pennine Arts as an arts development officer.  It was an excellent coincidence and we began an enduring on/off working relationship over the next 20 years or so.  I know that without Jackie I would have had no career to speak of.

She had an innate belief in me to make theatre or to make work with any difficult or challenging young person anywhere across the Mid-Pennine district and to always take a can-do approach.  Without doubt, a person thrives with that kind of investment and belief.

Before too long, Jackie moved on to an exciting new position and became the first paid worker at BYT (Burnley Youth Theatre – a place that twisted and turned between us for the next 15/20 years or so).  I was invited over to talk about some project or other and was surprised to find a blue hut in an old disused quarry, with a portacabin next door.  This was her office. That day, I also met Alan D.  Initially, I thought he was just walking his dogs – a couple of lassie type critters – but he was actually coming in for the day to work as a volunteer.  Alan was one of what I later came to know as the 3 amigos and although he didn’t know me from Adam, he immediately made a beeline for me.  That was the beauty of that place: if you were in, you were in and you were welcome.  Alan, Moira and Andrew were three key players who gave hours of their time for free at BYT to build a youth theatre like no other in the country: each in different ways, but each intensely. It might have been a blue hut in a field but those three had plans for it – those three wanted to transform the place into the single most important youth theatre anywhere in the UK.  I don’t know where that vision came from, but they each gave up their free time year on year to see it through to an impressive conclusion.

Alan had been the arts development manager at Burnley Council but had left.  I do not know why although rumour had it that he had always liked to take a drink, and sometimes this got in the way of his productivity. I don’t know the truth of this…but I do know that he worked day after day on bids for the youth theatre, putting in hours of time to raise money for a new building.  He spoke with a gentle Scottish burr and wore what can only be describe as a Greek Fisherman’s hat, and always looked a little like Captain Bird’s Eye.  He laughed heartily.  I always passed the time of day with him, and he reciprocated, offering me an insight into whatever weird or wonderful thing was in his mind that day.  He smiled often.

There is something strange between paid workers and volunteers: something that has to be negotiated.  Alan took up a lot of space, and sometimes, because of his history and his former job, chipped in when his thoughts weren’t welcome. Jackie tolerated this as well as anyone could be expected to – but it can’t have been easy.  It got better as BYT began to flex its muscles and become a bigger organisation, taking on new staff each year: a marketing person, an outreach person, a caretaker and, finally, a general manager.  Jackie became Artistic Director.  All this time, young people came to the youth theatre to do sessions, and shows, and a whole lot more.  All this time young people grew, changed, fledged and left.

In the early 2000s the 3 amigos and Jackie got perilously close to achieving their ambition of receiving grant aid to build the youth theatre.   They were invited down to London to be told of their success only on arriving to be ushered into a room and told there was no money left.  No one give up hope.  They dusted themselves off and started the long, arduous process of fundraising again. That place was special – generation on generation of children came and went often moving on to other bigger and better things, always giving a really clear sense of the impact of their stay.

Finally in 2003 (or maybe 2004) success came.  It was a momentous time: all celebrated this extraordinary thing that had happened.  Building work started straight away… and out of the disused quarry sprang the most extraordinary building.  It was designed to look like a building that belonged in a the footprint of the forest of Burnley, and it did, clad with beech that aged over time.

The building was completed in 2005 – an extraordinary achievement by Jackie and the 3 amigos.  Soon after, Jackie wanted to move on: she had, she felt, completed what she’d set out to do – created the biggest youth theatre space in the country and it was someone else’s turn to take it to the next level.

A new Artistic Director came in and – as is often the case after a successful tenure – he struggled to make an impact.  This was compounded by the early (and unexpected) death of Alan D: instrumental in changing the outcomes for so many young people and still committed to bid writing, he allegedly fell down the stairs of his home having had too much to drink.  I don’t know if this was salacious gossip or truth: I do know he was a massive loss to the organisation.

To honour him, and early in the new building’s life, Alan’s funeral took place in the main studio.  He had been so instrumental in its creation.  It was a strange and sombre affair: his coffin on the stage area, as if it wasn’t really happening at all.  His children and his wife players in this performance that no one wanted to see took their parts, his daughter delivering an extraordinary powerful eulogy.  No one applauded as he left the building, no curtains closed – there was no curtain call and, when it was over, the foyer was full of arts people dressed awkwardly in black who drifted off with few words.

Afterwards, the studio was named for Alan, a fitting tribute. Beneath his name it reads: “Anything can happen, if you don’t care who gets the credit” his favourite homily.  And something worth remembering in the business of making a difference, in transforming lives. Something I’ve taken with me.

Who by Fire?

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It was a Saturday, the sun was shining and in the days before hoodies we were outside of the Church Hall doing good deeds in full Guide Uniform.  I was the oldest and I was mostly playing the role of site supervisor, happily telling my patrol what rubbish went were. The only time I got involved was when I needed to use my not inconsiderable muscle.  The abandoned door, if I’d thought about it, which I didn’t, seemed to have been placed strategically.  The girls couldn’t lift it so I did.

It wasn’t the biggest mistake of my life, but it came quite close.  Underneath the door was a stash of whiskey, other booze, fags and chocolate.  I immediately knew I was in trouble.  It also explained something that had been nagging at the edge of my consciousness: Paul Hastie loitering around his garden.

There isn’t a reverse in life, but if there was, I’d have deployed it then. The upstairs window of the Hastie’s house swung open and Mr Hastie, Tommy, hung out of it. “Put that bastard door down,” he said.  I looked at him and did exactly that.  He was naked but for his underpants.

“You better not have smashed owt!” Charlie Hastie snarled, who’d appeared as if by magic, beside Paul.  Peter was there too, each boy an exact facsimile of the other, only in decreasing size.  They were like Russian dolls.

Charlie, the eldest after his sister Angelina, whispered that he’d kill us if we ‘grassed’.  I am, as I was then, one of life’s survivors.  I’d no more grass than undertake 4 flip turns in quick succession. Paul (the middle boy) offered that he’d be on every corner waiting for me.  Peter just grinned.

It was then that Mrs Hastie appeared, wearing only a bed sheet.  It occurred to me with the acute embarrassment of a 14 year old that they’d been in bed.  In the afternoon. With each other.

“I know your bleeding mother,” she said.  I wasn’t sure how to judge this comment, so continued to stand still, “she works at the chippy.”  This was true.  She did.

“Don’t you worry,” Charlie said, “I’ll keep her on track.” He would too – on the track that he wasn’t on,  I would make certain of that.  I was hyper-aware as it was, and this would only make matters worse.  I have never not seen anyone before they’ve seen me.  Never.  Charlie Hastie (and the other marauding families of my childhood) saw to that.

More shouting happened and then the other girls and myself skulked off…

I next saw Charlie Hastie a few weeks later when I inadvertently discovered his porn cache behind a grave in the actual church yard (when I was trying to snog a Boy Scout!) and that saw me being chased half way round west Hull (diverting back down Ena Street to avoid them and to get back to the Guides where I was supposed to be.) I’m not sure why he didn’t have it at home.  It’s not as though his parents were renowned for their strict moral code.

I didn’t see Charlie again for about a year, when he’d somehow grown a foot and acquired a very nice looking girlfriend.

The news of the arson attack filtered through slowly: this was before 24 hour rolling TV and social media.  I first got wind of it when I got home from school.  My mother had heard from someone who had heard  from someone.  By the time I was pushing newspapers through doors on my round, Charlie Hastie was already dead.

For the week or two that followed I pushed his face and that of his brothers (and their mother) through letter boxes.  I read the full story avidly as I walked my paper round.  First Charlie (15), then Paul (12) and then Peter (8).  Each of the boys suffered colossally extensive burns, 90% of their bodies were covered.  No one deserved this.  It didn’t matter that they terrified me – no one deserved this.  They were just kids.

Everyone had a theory about why it had happened, and quite a number of people had motives.  The Hasties had managed to piss off more than half of the neighbourhood.  These kids were feral before that phrase was coined: they roamed and marauded and were cock ‘o the estate – the police even found a note threatening to bomb the Hastie house, but that turned out to be an old lady who did what others thought of doing: sending an anonymous note to tell them what she’d thought.

But something had changed for Charlie in the run up to the arson attack that killed him.  He had met a girl and was trying to reform.  I’d seen it, fleetingly, myself at the bus stop and others had witnessed it too.  And he saved his mother: pushing her from the window as the house burned around them.

I have a vivid memory of the boys’ mother surrounded by people from their estate, pointing and yelling that one of them had done it.  It was raw, guttural and it silenced the gathered mass.

We were all interviewed by the police in their door-to-door inquiries.  My mother called me in, and asked me to come through to the living room and to speak to the constable sitting uncomfortably on our couch.  I told them they’d chased me, and I had been terrorised by them with their Alsatian Dog (which also died in the fire.) I did also mention finding their contraband in the Church Hall wasteland.  I wasn’t telling the police anything they didn’t already know. Tommy Hastie, the father, was in prison at the time of the fire, serving a sentence for theft.   The police said thank you and left.  My tales was unremarkable.

I spoke to my Guide Captain about what happened and she said they deserved it.  If I had ever had a faith, it came to an end at that point.  How could a person of God think like that?  But she was not alone.  Everyone had an opinion and it was rarely a generous one.

The Sunday Times ran a story about a sophisticated plot of drugs’ lords fighting over territory who – by some tragic happenstance – had set fire to the wrong house.  As a neighbourhood we wanted this to be true, because the alternative was that it was one of our own.  Someone exactly like us.

Peter Dinsdale, Daft Peter, who had changed his name to Bruce Peter Lee, was arrested after what seemed weeks of investigation.  He confessed to the arson attack that killed the Hastie boys, as well as a number of others too.  By his own admission, he had killed 26 people in total (although, in the end,  Wesley Lodge, an old people’s home he claimed to have set alight and where 11 old men died, was removed from the charges on appeal  meaning he was convicted of killing 15 people.)

Was Daft Peter like us?  A bit.  He lived among us but was, like a lot of individuals with special needs, largely ignored.  He had a slightly disabled arm and walked with a limp.  He had a lower than average IQ.  He had, by his account, had some run-ins with Charlie, but as Charlie is not here to defend himself, it’s hard to ascertain what these were.  Daft Peter, by way of retribution in the early hours of that night, poured paraffin through their letter box, retreated to the flyover to watch the flames flick into the night.

He was reputed to have said, “I just like fire.”

Bruce Peter Lee, one of Britain’s most prolific killers, is still held at Her Majesty’s pleasure, and is likely to die at Rampton Secure Hospital.

Grandpa

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Contrary to my sister’s belief my grandfather did not deliberately die on her birthday.  I guess, if he’d have had a choice, he would’t have died at all – although, who would want to live forever? Well, perhaps we all would if we could sustain a semblance of youth, but then, by the time my grandpa died he was, largely speaking, past his best.

I have a number of memories of him – probably the earliest memory was him arriving to babysit the 3 of us (before my younger brother was born) because my mother had a shift at Smith and Nephews, working on the Nivea line. He arrived in his trilby hat (which I was given at his death and which lasted years, eventually found rotting in my cellar and thrown away in the great clear out of 2014 before moving lock, stock and barrel to the south west.)   He was also wearing his overcoat (in  my memory it was summer) and although not the tallest bloke he was nonetheless austere – it was hard to square this man with the coal man that my mother talked about or the boy soldier, who rose to non-commissioned officer rank captain.   When you’re a child, it is hard to reconcile that adults have any previous life at all.  And yet, his by all accounts had been eventful.

From his undistinguished birth: the bastard child of a scullery maid and a math’s professor though no on has ever found the proof of this through to his days as a lollipop man. He was called Andy by the world at large (although his name was Arthur) because he was handy with the ladies. He met my gran at 28 and she was was 18.   He was born within the sound of the Bow bells – so I’ve got some of that South East blood, that London stuff running through my veins two generations removed though I’m not convinced many of his genes made their way to me.  I’m of the other side I think, all angled cheekbones and word obsessed.

On the baby sitting night, we ran the poor bugger ragged.  My sister and I had  a wind-up record player and we played “Shoo fly don’t bother me” and “Skip to my lou my darling” on it, so often, that he was probably close to throttling us. Every time the refrain, Skip to my lou came on, that’s exactly what we did… skipped enthusiastically and with a degree of gusto belying the fact that we were way past our bedtime, crashing into each other in our eagerness to get to the toilet first.  He tried telling us it wasn’t that kind of loo but we ignored him getting giddier with each turn.

He never looked after us again.

We must have seen him a lot, because we went up to North Hull Estate where he lived behind the library every few weeks but I can’t really remember him playing much of a starring role: he’d be sitting watching TV or having a smoke or making tea.

He did feature occasionally.  When I was about 7, my sister, my cousin Michelle and me went with him to Blackpool.  This was no small undertaking and I know that it involved staying over at my grandparents’ house (the only time we strayed upstairs in my memory) and getting up in the small hours to catch the train to travel the breadth of the country.  And the purpose of this trip?  To experience the tram and the light’s switch on.

I remember nothing about the tram.  I do remember the illuminations and I remember it was cold.  (I also recall going back to Blackpool twenty-five years later and wondering what he would have made of the roller-skating transvestite in a bikini handing out leaflets for a nightclub and the free range, marauding hen parties full of women with learner signs and pink feather boas, but he was long dead by then.)

Other abiding memories of him were his cockney accent, his rough hewn tattoos, his overloud telly and the sweet, sweet tea that seemed to be on tap, brought across the room by his shaking hand… There was something  tense and mesmerising about that shaking hand and something reassuring about his smile as the cup sploshed to a standstill in front of you.  He was often smoking simultaneously – a dangerous combination and you watched the ash carefully as it dangled from the tab end.  Sometimes, he hooked the fag into his mouth.  Other times, fag in hand, he began to cough and as  his breath rattled round his riven lungs, you held your own, certain that like a pin ball it would somehow work its way lose again and the coughing would stop.

I remember lots of other things about his front room: the never ending mirrors that returned your reflection from one to the other ad infinitum.  His large brown chair.  His ash tray full to the top with Park Drive tabs, his collection of Guiness Books of Records and Benny Hill running around like a maniac on the telly and all conversations conducted over the melee. “How’s school?” he’d asked “It’s alright,” you’d answer even if it was the shittest place on earth.  He wanted all his grandkids to do well…though he did not live to see me awarded my first degree (the first ever in the family) and he was a long time dead by the time I’d received numbers two and three.

Nothing much else was said until the women folk had left (dad stayed behind for in-depth conversations) for Aunty Joan’s which also involved the carrying of a giant box of cakes and buns around by Grandma, who was paid to bake them and I spent all the time thinking which I’d choose when we’d arrived and its delights were opened up.  Maid of honour was my favourite.  The exquisite nature of the almond paste, jam and almonds – Grandpa was a lucky man if he got to choose a different cake each day. I’ll never taste its like again.

Granddad’s final days were discussed openly.  His wish, for instance, to die at home was well known and yet somehow, the ambulance was called…

“All his organs were failing him,” my mother said, and so he didn’t get his final wish.

When the end was near, my mother repeated a homily of his.  “Life,” he’d said, “was like a bucket of water.  Remove a cup, and that’s the difference you’ve made. The water looks the same.”  I always found this sad because although he didn’t hang around for long in my life (I was 12), there’s a vividness to the memories: the Izal medicated, the carbolic soap in jars to be re-pressed, the lollipop stick in the coal house, the smile.  The hopes that somehow failed: his made-up double-barrel name.

My grandfather died – in hospital – on the 18th April 1978 of multiple organ failure, and my sister had a dismal day on her 14th birthday.

 

 

 

June

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I was stuck on the top of a seesaw.  It was yellow and red and a woman with a learning disability, some 15 stone at a rough estimate was at the other end of it.  The seesaw was not see-sawing.  I was 9.  I was also trying to explain – with an increasing sense of alarm why her stepping off the seesaw would be a really bad idea.  I was envisaging myself catapulted halfway across Hull.  I tried shouting, “No!” and that provided a temporary stay of execution.  My hand signals after that were somewhat inadequate.  The lady sitting on the other end smiled benignly.  “Please,” I said, “Get off gently.”  She didn’t speak, and began stepping off again. Only No! did the job.  So, I shouted again.

My hero, as it turned out, was a 50 year old man with Down’s Syndrome.  At least, he looked 50. Rushing towards us, he seemed to have devised a way of communicating with the lady.  Then, putting his not inconsiderable weight to the matter, he balanced the seesaw between us.  My feet dangled tantalisingly close to the ground.  He leant my way.  Smiled.  My feet touched.  Now my new friends were in danger of coming a cropper but as I made to get off, he shifted his weight as a counterbalance.

“Fuck me!” he said with absolute clarity.  I looked up.  It had been easy to assume that these adult people were very large children, surrounded as we were by primary coloured equipment, but he had made a lie of that. He smiled again as I stepped off fully and then helped soften his friend’s fall. “You should have gone on the swings Maggie,” he said.

It had been a very confusing day.  Firstly, my mam was unusually tense as we took three buses to get to Tilworth Grange.  (In Hull, two buses is considered a very long way!) I wasn’t sure why her mood was so tense, but as this was a journey that she normally took on her own, I could only assume that my presence (I had been to the hospital for an appointment prior to this expedition) was either

a) cramping her style OR

b) giving her additional concern in a stressful situation.

It became quickly apparent when we entered the building where her concerns lay.  As we walked down the corridor,she swiftly manoeuvred me out of the way of a bloke in the corner who appeared to be vibrating.

At that point, and unlike her, she made a classic parent error, commanding that I didn’t look.  I was really uncertain of what was happening, but now I realise that the dark haired guy was wanking to his heart’s content.

And why not?

It was dull at Tilworth Grange.  If playground stuff was not your thing, there was precious little else to do.  A man needed to find his own stimulation.

The second thing was meeting Aunty June.  She was leaning up in bed and her head was truly enormous.  I really had seen nothing like her before: she was something of a miracle. Her large head was the result of hydrocephalus before draining the water was feasible.  Oddly, she looked like my mother only tiny (her spindly arms stuck out of her cardigan) and her forehead was excessively large.

“Your Aunty June can read,” My mother said.

This was patently untrue given that the Beano annual (my Beano annual) that she was reading was upside down.  This flight of fancy was very out of character for my mother.

“But…” I began, only to receive one of those if looks could kill looks.  My mother’s shit eye surpasses all known human communications.  I was silenced.

It was then I’d spied the slide outdoors and seeing my keenness to be elsewhere, I was ushered outside.  I’d been lonely until my seesaw companion had arrived.  And then, distressed.

Tilworth Grange was full of people who had learning disabilities in an age when such people were housed away from the family home.  This wasn’t entirely true because Billy who also had Down’s lived down our street, but I think that was because his mother bucked the trend: she was young, and Billy was her first born.  Later, as a teen when I did my paper round and delivered my final Hull Daily Mail in St Pancras Crescent, Coltman Street there was a guy who liked to hang around the landing without his pants on.  Billy later died tragically on a mini-bus on the way back from a trip for the want of a seat belt, and his family have spent years campaigning to make seat belts compulsory law.

The thing about Tilworth Grange though was it was full of people who were either abandoned or too disabled to be cared for at home.

“You know that the Beatles raised money for your Aunty June’s pram, don’t you?”  My mother told me.  Of course I knew this, it was one of those family stories that got re-told ad nauseum – they had a concert, and the proceeds went towards June’s pram and a number of other things. I was fascinated by the pram because she couldn’t stand/sit up properly and in other visits June was pushed outside in it. It was the 70s and the 70s were not like the 80s, 90s, or 00s.  People weren’t hidden but the understanding about capacity and capability was quite different.  It was somewhere were people were housed – not provided with activities or occupation.

Aunty June was very disabled but her sisters: my mother, Janice and Joan, and at that stage my grandmother too – were inordinately caring and loving towards her visiting on a weekly basis, taking a pretty arduous journey in my mother’s case.  My grandfather never went: it broke his heart that his little girl was afflicted, never somehow forgiving himself that she wasn’t perfect.

Retrospectively, it’s clear it was an inadequate place in many ways.  Adult people should not have been playing on equipment designed for children, or wanking in corridors for the want of something better to do.

The standards of cleanliness and food hygiene left much to be desired too.  In 1976, after a spate of food poisoning, June died.  At her funeral, she was given a commemorative urn with a legend written on it expressing Tilworth Grange’s sorrow at her loss, which, when the next person died (a week later) was moved on.  A dozen people died in quick succession and I imagine that urn’s criss-cross journey across the cemetery.

In those days, people were not litigious and there was no comeuppance for this sorry state of affairs.  In truth, I don’t even remember my mother’s grief.  I don’t know what that says about me, or if, in fact, she didn’t have any.

Not Billy

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When I first arrived in Manchester, I lived in a shared house with two gay men.  One, the owner, Dennis, was a likeable oddball – with interesting habits.  His bedroom was stacked high with newspapers with a single pathway left clear for him to reach the bed.  I only knew this because I sneaked a look when he was out doing his regular late night shopping on a Thursday evening where he invariably bought expensive coffee (“Smell it,” he’d say, shoving it under my nose.  “It’s coffee,” I’d say, smiling. He did the same routine with fresh baked bread.  “It’s not ordinary bread, it’s a quality product.”  Over the week it would grow mouldy.)  I never socialised with Dennis – he kept very odd hours, and wasn’t a party animal.  He looked like a member of the Sylvanian Family. We rubbed along together and fell out only once when he disapproved of me putting one of his glass tumblers over a cockroach in the kitchen.  I thought this a reasonable response.

The other man was Little Chris – a lovely gay man who hailed from Brighton and struggled with his weight: ballooning and dieting by turns.  I have an abiding memory of Chris walking up and down the living room, with the phone extension trailing behind him, speaking.  Chris loved to talk.  He absolutely loved to talk.  He also loved comics and Dungeons and Dragons, things that still remain something of a mystery to me.  In a very short time, he had surrounded himself with a group of lovely friends.  Those I can remember were Alan, Norman, Big Chris and Billy. I never met Big Chris, but I did get to meet the rest on numerous memorable occasions.

The most memorable was in Dennis’ house (although Dennis was not present – he was the antithesis of Billy) playing Host House to Murder.  This was the first time I met Billy.  I’d heard about him, and his madness from Little Chris, and although this had gone some way to prepare me, the evening surpassed my expectations.

Host House to Murder is a box set game that is the basis for a murder mystery party, each person taking on a designated role and, we played that night.  The set up of the game is that everyone can be guilty through each of the rounds, and the participants’ role is to try to work out whodunnit it? by asking sharp, insightful, thoughtful questions.

Not Billy.

He arrived (along with Norman who had a rather lovely beard) dressed as a woman.  I forget which role specifically, and it hardly mattered.  Billy asked only one question all evening… Little Chris bravely battled to keep the game on track, reading out each of the clues, and instructions but Billy would not deviate from his interrogation technique.  Whoever it was, and whatever they had done, he only asked, “did they shag?” or as a variation, “did you shag?”

The evening descended into repeated hysteria, the anticipation of the question building in each round, against the delightful earnestness of Little Chris trying to keep the whole shebang on track.  The evening ended with a big reveal and I learnt plenty in the process: firstly that most gay men look better in frocks than I could ever hope to and that secondly, hanging out with these guys was definitely a way to blow away the blues of the working week.

As time passed I gathered more and more stories about Billy and the vividness of his life – the bobbing down to the communal bin in his stilettos, his very cool dancing, his collection of sex toys (that Little Chris was instructed to remove in the event of his death), his zest for life, his wit and general bonkersness…

But this was 1991 and the world was not a kind place for gay men. This was the year that  Freddie Mercury died (I remember driving to the centre of Buxton and reading every single news item I could find about his death). We volunteered to be part of something called the Village Charity, shocked that this disease could be taking young men from us, wanting to do our bit.

I don’t remember when we found out that Billy was HIV positive, but I know that it was something that he wasn’t going to let get in the way of his party lifestyle.  And he didn’t.

Big Chris apparently was HIV+ too, but he took the advice of health professionals and reigned himself in.

Not Billy.

By this time, Big Chris and Billy were no longer together, and Billy met Steve. It fell to Steve to look after him as his health deteriorated.

The last time I saw Billy alive was in the least glamorous place on earth. Sainsbury’s.  I attempted to keep my face still and not give away what I felt but Billy had shrunk – his face tight like leather across his bones, and I knew that he was not long for the world.  He was wearing his death mask.

And it was not Billy.

He did not say outrageous things.  He did not raise a laugh with some piece of wit or wisdom.  He did not have anything much to say at all.  He spoke about his medication, the difficulties he faced with his frail body and how he couldn’t make it behave in a way he expected, in a way he wanted. Steve was shrill beside him: the kindest of men but not clever or funny or naughty, a caring, decent man. I said goodbye to Billy and I knew it would be the last time.  He had been reduced – and he was dying.

We got word that Billy had requested that we did not wear black for his funeral – so we dressed in bright colours to honour this final wish.  We were the only ones who did, most wore black.  Some of those men: Alan and Norman and Chris had been to funeral after funeral, losing friends on a monthly basis. There was a kind of strange resignation in the air: a sense of hideous inevitability. That was what Aids did to the gay community: it ripped out some of its finest souls, each one lost before their time.

And there was  a kind of tension in the air as he was laid to rest: something between the family and Steve, something between Steve and Billy’s former life.  Something not said. A hollow, empty space he’d left behind that no-one could fill.

Falling

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Standing on the 20th floor of a block of flats in Hulme, I could see the broad sweep of Manchester. It was dark and the lights threw enticing patterns across the the city.  Momentarily, I was overcome by an urge to throw myself off.  I was experiencing what psychologists call ‘high-place’ phenomenon.  The building seemed  to sway, pulling me off the edge and I drew myself quickly back inside; that sense of not feeling safe – it’s instinct to pull away.  Otherwise, hundreds of people would throw themselves off buildings every day (now the image of falling bodies is etched into our collective consciousness after 9/11 but this happened pre-2001)  but I interpreted my  experience as a suicidal thought.  A micro end-it-all moment. Then, I imagined drifting gently to the ground, saw myself half flying then falling fast: fast, too fast.  So I drew myself further into the flat, back to its glow and comfort.  This wasn’t me: I’m not that sort, I’m the sort who wobbles but doesn’t fall down.

M and I talked into the dead of night.  Laughed about the last time we’d met and I was waiting outside for my lift home and a woman had walked past with a machete swearing she’d kill the bastard if she found him.  That was Hulme.  Another incident, M said, just the day before: a young man chased by the police had run to the top of edge of one set of flats, and unwilling to hand himself in, had jumped to his death.  His mind wasn’t right, she said. He fell, and never got up again. (Years later I found out this was a boy I’d taught: one of those boys prematurely tall.  He was spoilt, ruined my mother would have said. Difficult to like. His parents, never somehow learning the lesson that less is more, bought him a sporty car – he crashed it and messed up his head.  Wasn’t himself: never really found his way home again.  Lived from hand to mouth until finding himself on that roof with, as he saw it, all his choices gone: the end of the line and his impulse to escape all that was left.  He’d always been the kind of boy who was never in the wrong and all he had was instinct.  There, afraid, tearful, gone.)

The flat smelt reassuringly sweet, incense burning in all rooms.  It was such a cool flat M kept – treasures from all manner of sources carefully and tastefully left about the place. There was a picture of her as a  child on the wall: wearing a pair of dungarees, super cute and other carefully thought through things.  Just things. She laughed madly about this and that.  We talked of partners, hopes, their pain, things we planned to do…the life we meant to lead. She marrying P – maybe – me trying to work my way through.

Our time together was girls’ nights: us two.  But we talked of him: his creativity, the danger of his brilliant mind, his kindness.  His desire to get it right.  His pain.  His perfection and his sadness at never quite managing it. She loved him. P defined her, she said, made her world real, whole.

I only met him once.

I don’t remember how I got the news.  In the world before proper mobile phone use, I don’t know by what means it came to me.  Did we speak on the phone?  Did she walk round?  Did someone else tell me?

The details have gone.

Those were the days when we still wanted to be a separate self – perhaps behaved like singles when we were out.  We drank too much, we smoked in days when smoking was still allowed.  We made each other laugh.

He filled his car with petrol, one afternoon a few days after M and my night out.  He drove at some pace. He drove from his flat in Manchester down the motorway, speeding all the way to his home village.  A journey of 7 hours took 4. Later, they could track his path on the overhead cameras on the motorway.  How he hadn’t crashed and taken someone with him, no-one knew.

She told me all this: wild-eyed – the wonder of it, and the pain like a tooth hole left in the mouth, impossible to leave alone.  Impossible not to worry at it with the tongue but causing instant pain.

He found a field near his parents’ house.  All planned.  He drove right into the heart of it not caring if he’d ever get his car out. He wouldn’t.

He attached a tube from the exhaust to the window and with what remained of the petrol, just enough, started the car engine and fell asleep never to wake again.  Nothing spontaneous about his death.  Nothing instinctive or what Freud called a death wish: all carefully planned.

“He was just a bit down,” she said with all her pain exposed. I saw her soul – her life in the raw. She kept going over all the ground.  Was there something she could do? Should have done? Could she have changed his mind?  Over and over she told her part – how she felt to blame.  Went through all the steps, over and over: sitting on the floor by my back door, smoking, in the pub – in the newly decorated rooms of her flat. All the stages.  If she’d have been in to answer the phone the day before.  If she’d said the right words. If she had not insisted on him going to the doctors…

“And now,” she said, “His parents won’t let me near.” Though they did eventually relent but the damage was done.  Pain on pain. Separated by space – of being close but not close enough.

She blamed the medication: before he’d taken it he was down and, she thought, it gave him just enough motivation to kill himself.

She was wrong.  He was already falling.  Falling.

He would have done it anyway.

His life had everything you might want.  The funniest girl on the block, talent, success.

But it wasn’t enough to save him.

And there were never enough times for me to say, ‘It wasn’t your fault M.  There was nothing you could do?’

In the years that followed she made massive life changes.   Found love.  Got pregnant.  Bought a house. Grew apart from me. Our friendship fell through.

The last time I saw her, she was three cars away.  I took massive risks to reach her.  Over took.  Ran a light.  Beeped.  Followed her into the hospital car park where she was attending ante-natal clinic for her second child. We hugged. Said hello. Said goodbye. That sense of feeling close, and far away: near the edge and the temptation to jump rolled over me. That sense of not feeling safe – we pulled away.  Smiled. Waved.

All our chances gone, I never saw her again.

 

 

 

War Effort

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So cast your mind back.  It’s Hull, sometime in 1940s war time Britain.   Much of the city was tormented by bombs.  More than 1,000 hours were spent under alert during raids across the war period with at least 1,200 people killed. So it was normal for the air raid sirens to swear into the night, and families to pour into shelters and hope, against hope, that all would still be standing when they flicked into day time hours.  The air was thick with smoke from the falling masonry and debris.

Out of this, emerged a man I never met but who has cast a regular shadow over who I am and what I’ve become.  My paternal grandfather.  I have never even seen a picture of him, although I imagine him like my father: tall and willowy with film-star, slicked back hair dark but not black. A sort of Lincolnshire Rhett Butler.  A man with swagger and swash-buckling style (although the reality might have been somewhat different.) I am shaped by his absence because when folk die young they leave a kind of residue, a sort of promise of what they might have done: instead of fading away, or being subject to a shocking reduction as age weighs down even the most brilliant of souls. It seems you become what you’re not anymore unless you’re lucky and you’ve money and even then, even then, you cannot defeat aging’s relentless march – you cannot persuade fragility to bi-pass.   If you die young, you die with what you could have become still open to speculation, as though life continues in some alternative universe.

My grandfather Arthur then, a yellow belly*, was a man destined not to go to the war – something he struggled to live with.  I imagine him taking unnecessary risks: staying above ground longer than he should have done, skipping between strikes his face lit up by the bomber’s lights, or buying that extra pale ale in the pub.  He wanted, I suppose to be like most men of that generation, to ‘fight for his country.’ (Even in my generation when the Falklands war began, all the boys in the sixth form common room at Sydney Smith High School said they’d go to war in a heart beat.  Every single boy.  And all the girls were shocked, looked at them aghast saying, “What for?  You’d fight in a completely pointless war for Thatcher?” A row of ardent female pacifist against a battalion of Adidas Samba trainered boys with arms folded petulantly as if we’d somehow questioned the size of their manhood. Who were these boys we’d thought we knew?  Who were they?)

So Arthur was no different. He wore a different uniform, one of overalls: marginally above the reserves but only just,  and nowhere near the heights of the soldier.  He was ashamed at having to stay behind in a reserved occupation, he did not want to be rigging ships. It didn’t seem like much when he’d wanted to fight like all his mates.

Fast-forward 90 plus years and I’m sitting in my neighbour’s house and he’s telling me how he’s built six boats in his time, one taking six whole years, 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for six years to build and rig: an echo of my grandfather Arthur, a man  who influenced the main things (over-working, for example, over-working until it killed him, so they said) and I’m drinking my fifth pint of home brew worrying that I might regret it in the morning.

When I was 10 I realised what the lack of a father had done to my dad (he was 6 when Arthur died).  My mother had threatened us with dad on his return from work: my sister had been caught shop-lifting and my mother was smart enough to know that if she had been up to no good, the chances were I had too. So began one of the longest days of my life – off school ill with a mother refusing to speak to me for company except to warn me at hourly intervals of the pain that my father would inflict with his belt, on his return.  My sister arrived home at 4, all her cockiness gone (my mother had rung her at school knowing as a prefect my sister would answer the phone, and told her much the same as she’d told me: his belt would mark us for life and we would never be sticky-fingered again.)

My sister and I re-distributed food on our plates at tea time then went up to the bedroom to await our fate.  When dad came home, he came upstairs.  Then, the three of us entered into a kind of secret pact.  He tried, he really did, to raise his belt, his hand, his temper but he really couldn’t so without any words spoken we, all three of us crying, pretended that he had done the deed.  Somehow, in losing his father young, he didn’t know how to be that kind of dad and he became the kind who made it up as he went along. And the brutal but perfectly normal kind of working class man of that time who beat his kids for bad stuff didn’t exist inside my dad, who’d been brought up (and spoiled) by women.

And Arthur – for years I just knew that he died in the war.  I imagined torpedoes, or bombs, heroism, laying his life down for another man.  Instead, somehow or other, it emerged he’d died of untreated stomach ulcers, popped and bleeding: the pain of his non-combat role made manifest.  And that legacy breathes fire into us all too: the tension held in the stomach, the never stopping, the driving onwards when the sensible option is to stop, take a breather and survive.  Not Arthur and not his antecedents.

My replacement grandfather, Ernie came much later when my dad was in his teens.  Ernie was something of a catch it seems.  Or so my Guide Captain told me, when he’d rocked up at my Queen’s Guide celebrations in his late 70s and she’d taken me to one side and said, “Do you know that man?” her eyes strangely wide with something close to wonder. “I know him,” I said, “He’s my granddad.”

And then, in a sort of girlish breath (she was almost 60) she said, “He used to chase all the girls over the beds” which sounded more suggestive than it was, but still bad enough – Ernie had spent his working life as floor manager at Hammond’s departmental store.  “No-one would get in a lift with him,” she said, darkly and then laughed – the kind of laugh I knew meant it was only half true and though Ernie was a Lothario, he was fun if you wanted flirtation (odd he ended up with my grandmother, who was oddly buttoned down.)

The old bugger always had a twinkle in his eye, and mischief on his mind. “Aye,” he said, one time when I asked him about Arthur, “That fella was a pirate on the wild seas.  That’s where you get your name from.”

And every single part of me wanted to believe it was true.

*a yellow-belly is someone from Lincolnshire